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Trump Campaign Denies Ex-Fox Chief Ailes Is A Debate Adviser


For the second time in as many months, Donald Trump is shaking up his campaign staff. As Trump's poll numbers continue to fall, he's created two positions above his campaign chairman, who's been embroiled in controversy. One of them is an executive for Breitbart News, who will fill the role of chief executive. Additionally, The New York Times is reporting that former Fox News chief Roger Ailes is advising Donald Trump on how to handle the upcoming presidential debate. That news comes several weeks after Ailes was pushed out the door at the network that he helped found. Ailes and Trump have a long personal relationship, and Ailes has a background in politics. He advised Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush during their presidential campaigns. NPR's David Folkenflik has covered Ailes for years and joins us now from New York. Good morning.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the Trump campaign is denying that Roger Ailes is an adviser. What's going on?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, what's going on is probably something a little equivalent to arguing over what the definition of, is, is. Roger Ailes, effectively, informally advised Donald Trump even when he was leading Fox News. The two are friendly from New York circles. And I think what you're seeing is Roger Ailes will continue to advise Donald Trump a little bit on positioning, on body language, on how to approach certain key events coming up, like the debates, and probably with a little bit more urgency now that Ailes has more time on his hands and a little bit of a grievance, now he's no longer running Fox News.

MONTAGNE: But of all the people he could look to, why seek out Ailes' help at this point?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons, one of which you just alluded to. Roger Ailes helped to advise 3 of the last 4 Republican presidents to win office through an election. He's very smart about both politics and about how to handle the media. And, you know, he really knows how to serve red meat to the Republican and conservative core base that Trump is relying on, even as he, at a certain point, has to expand the number of voters he's appealing to. I think that - that Ailes is just very canny and smart about these things. And, you know, you can see it in the way in which he was able to - to help influence Republican and conservative politics for so many years through the media.

MONTAGNE: Well, Trump, though, at times, has clashed with Fox News. And, pretty famously, after tough questioning by Fox journalist Megyn Kelly during a primary debate, Trump got in a very public feud with Kelly and Fox. So did that feud not also pit Trump against Roger Ailes?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it forced Ailes back on his heels, but I think what Ailes was really doing was trying to, in a sense, triangulate or walk a very delicate line between needing to defend his own journalists. Trump essentially made that first debate a year ago in the Republican primary about him and Fox News, effectively icing the other nine candidates who were on the stage that night. But Ailes really didn't come out after Trump that hard. In fact, Megyn Kelly was somewhat resentful, I can tell you, about the fact that Ailes didn't have her back, to her perception. And - and that was a grievance that she's had in recent months as she's sought to consider whether she would be better-placed working for a different outlet. Ailes ultimately did condemn Trump, but he very much wanted Trump back on the airways. Remember, every time Trump was on the air, the ratings would spike up. Megyn Kelly, it's worth remembering, is one of the women who's been speaking to the law firm investigating the ongoing and growing sexual harassment scandal that cost Roger Ailes his job. I think Roger Ailes, over the years, saw cable news as politics by other means. Now, he's back in the political game, if only informally.

MONTAGNE: All right. That's NPR's David Folkenflik. Thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.